The arrest of a dozen men in four cities in England and Wales Monday for allegedly planning al Qaeda-inspired terror attacks is fueling anew the deep concern among European and U.S. intelligence services that al Qaeda is determined to strike this winter. Sweden has already been spared a horrific terror attack by the mistakes of a suicide bomber whose bomb went off prematurely. So far luck has been with us. But counterterrorism experts know they can’t count on luck.
The arrests in the U.K. are the latest in a long series of conspiracies uncovered by the British internal security service MI5, which has recognized al Qaeda and its allies like Lashkar-e-Taiba and their sympathizers as the greatest threat to British security. The British services have foiled many plots, most notably the 2006 plan to simultaneously blow up in mid-air eight or so jumbo jets flying from the U.K. to Canada and the U.S. But they failed in 2005 to prevent the attack on London’s Underground.
Most of these plots have focused on the large Pakistani diaspora community in Great Britain, some 800,000 strong, which has long been a target for al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba planners. Some of those arrested in the current crackdown are from the U.K.’s Bangladeshi community—almost 300,000 strong—which is probably just as high a priority for MI5 surveillance now. Young men from these South Asian communities with British passports routinely travel home for business or family reasons. Most are entirely innocent; a few are secretly being trained for terror and then sent to attack.
Bin Laden is trying to stretch the battlefield as widely as possible both in terms of targets threatened and in terms of staging places for training and recruiting jihadis.
The U.K. was also home to the Stockholm bomber, Talmour Abdulwahhab Al-Abdaly, for much of his life. His attempt on December 11 to blow himself up with a suicide bomb vest and a backpack full of nails in a Swedish mall has been lauded by al Qaeda as the “battle of Stockholm” on the terrorists’ websites. An Iraqi by birth, he claimed to have been trained in the Middle East, perhaps Jordan, by al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq. He said he wanted to kill Swedes to punish them for having troops with NATO in Afghanistan and for a Swedish cartoonists' satire of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Iraqi connection is disturbing. The U.S. has devoted years of intense effort to try to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq and has achieved considerable success. Nonetheless, the group has proven remarkably resilient and agile. Until Stockholm, the al Qaeda wing confined its murder to the Middle East, striking primarily in Iraq but also in Jordan and Turkey. If it is now training killers for attacks outside the Middle East, that is a new and worrisome danger, adding to the threat already posed from the al Qaeda core in Pakistan and the increasingly ambitious franchise in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
We face a truly global terror network, the first in history, which is based loosely around a CEO, Osama bin Laden, who has evaded the largest manhunt in history for a decade and who is inspiring a small but deadly minority within the Islamic world to wage jihad against us relentlessly. Bin Laden is trying to stretch the battlefield as widely as possible both in terms of targets threatened and in terms of staging places for training and recruiting jihadis. His goal is to bleed the West with a thousand wounds, painful wars and expensive counterterrorism measures and perhaps to spark a war of civilizations by fueling Islamophobia.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad will be published later this month.